Our original plan had been to head back to Mexico from Antigua, and leave Flores & Tikal for a quick detour from Belize later in our trip. However, after doing some research, and seeing that a border crossing from Flores to Palenque was relatively easy, we headed up in order to tick Guatemala off our list.
From Antigua, the only way to get directly to Flores in the north is by overnight bus from Guatemala City. This posed a small problem, as we weren’t too keen to be on a local bus to Guatemala City after dark from Antigua. We had heard that a bus driver had been stabbed recently on a bus, and that many local students consider items being stolen just another expense of travel on this route. While we are aware these can be rare incidents, the number of reports and the reputation of Guatemala City was a bit too hard to ignore. We found a hostel that offered a shuttle direct to the first-class bus station plus the bus ticket for $40USD. While a bit pricey, it seemed the safer and wiser option.
Having heard the stories of overnight buses in this region, we prepared for a pretty horrific journey. However, the only negative of the trip was the fact they crank the air con to the point the bus reaches arctic-like conditions (we had prepared for this though). The bus arrived well ahead of schedule (5.30am instead of 7.00am), and we were whisked away on a shuttle by a local man who was trying to sell accommodations and Tikal tours. We simply told him where we were staying, and that we didn’t want to go to Tikal. Luckily our accommodation – Los Amigos – let us check in, and we got some horizontal shut eye for another 3 or so hours.
Los Amigos is a great hostel, with an excellent restaurant/bar area, affordable drinks and an extensive food menu. We booked a private room, and we ended up in another building (which was great, as it had its own little rooftop terrace, and very few people staying in it). While not the cheapest in town, it is definitely the most popular.
We spent the day exploring the small island town of Flores. It is a quirky and beautiful wee place, and benefits from the large city of Santa Elena just across a 500m causeway. Again, with it being rainy season, we found the outskirts of the town by Lake Peten to be flooded. But this made for some great photos, and a little bit of fish spotting as we wandered.
It doesn’t take long to explore this place, so if you are keen, you can hire a boat for a lake tour, or just transfer across to another part of the lake in the north. We spent that evening watching the sunset over the lake with some beers, then enjoying the local street food market.
Obviously, our main reason for being here was to see our first ruins – Tikal. We were both pretty excited, and booked in on the early bird tour with the hostel. Local transport out to Tikal from Flores seemed to be around $8USD return, and for $11USD we were able to get a return shuttle and a guide, so it was a no-brainer. Be aware though, if you do book this deal, you will be walking around and sharing the guide with about 20 other people, but it’s understandable given the price. We also had the option to do a sunrise/set tour, but that was double the price, and we didn’t like our odds of a clear morning in rainy season, so we passed.
We woke up bright and early – 4.00am – to catch our shuttle out to the ruins. The purpose of leaving so early is to be there for opening at 6.00am. We had a great guide – Lloyd – who spoke good English, and gave us a great background on the traditions of the Maya, and the buildings themselves.
Tikal is incredible. It is a large site, so be prepared to do some walking, but the views you get from the temples is still burnt into our brains – especially from the 70m tall Templo 4. Sitting on top of this temple and looking out over the rainforest, with temples popping out, is something you will remember for the rest of your life. We both could have sat there for another hour without talking, it was just awesome.
The rest of Tikal is just as impressive, and we ended up spending an extra hour there after the tour, exploring all the ruins that weren’t covered in the tour, with Templo 5 worth a visit.
After an early start to Tikal, we headed back to Flores and treated ourselves to a milkshake at Maple & Tocino, a cafe we had eyed up the day before. We were not disappointed…
Overall, we can second the many guide-book and tourist suggestions to visit Tikal. If you are able to witness a sunrise from Templo 4, it would be a magical experience (sunsets are from the main plaza temples, and just wouldn’t quite be as good!). Tikal is arguably a bucket list item for any keen traveller!